Music Reviews: Nothing More Than Symphonica, Or Girl Gets A Shakedown

September 14, 2015

By BRUCE DENNILL

 

Basson Laubscher & The Violent Free Peace: Shakedown                  6

George Michael: Symphonica                                                                4

Red Huxley: Nothing More                                                                    5.5

Pharrell Williams: Girl                                                                             6.5

 

Stellenbosch may not be Chicago, but it has its own burgeoning reputation as a centre for authentic blues-based music and singer-songwriter and guitarist Basson Laubscher and his cohorts make an authentic, gritty racket in that genre. Opener Bad News has a riff reminiscent of everyone from Stevie Ray Vaughan to Slash, and Tim Rankin’s propulsive rhythm shunts the song forward aggressively. Cage Blue is a different animal (literally – it’s about a bird) with a mellower, balladic feel. This extends into album highlight Brother, which has a hint of classic The Band hit The Weight about it. Killing Me is perhaps the most straightforward blues track in the collection (“You’re poison, baby, slowly running through my veins”, murmured over an empty, shuffling instrumental line). Rambling Man is equally tradition-bound, adding the phrase “I’m a rolling stone” to the well-worn title idea. It’s all wrapped up with the enjoyable Swamp Thing, featuring some formidable blues harp over a potent guitar riff. Laubscher confirms his place alongside Dan Patlansky, Albert Frost and a handful of others as a blues-influenced guitarist capable of leading the line in the South African market.

 

The combination of George Michael’s superb pop voice and the elegance and lush layering of a full orchestra seems – immediately and without reservation – like a good idea. It’s fair to say, though, that the singer’s front-page fall from grace still plays on the minds of both audience and artist (opening track Through deals with that situation directly, perhaps with a view to getting it out of the way early on). And there’s not really a kick on from that platform. Tone – vocal ring orchestral – is fantastic, but the bulk of the material is slow and thoughtful, woth very little variation in pace or intent. There are a number of covers, with the best being a gorgeous version of The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, and the worst being a take on Elton John tune Idol (not a big hit, and for obvious reasons once you’ve heard the song). Such sets are often put together to showcase the range of the artist – think of Robbie Williams’ swing collection, for instance – but Michael’s choice of compositions doesn’t play into the hands of his collaborators here. The Symphonica Orchestra plays beautifully as the singer warbles, but the combined efforts of all concerned can’t hide the fact that the songs are, for the most part, just boring. A missed opportunity.

 

For Cape Town band Red Huxley, debut album Nothing More functions as, er, more than just a collection of songs. It’s also the foundation of their own legend, an aspect of being a musician much celebrated in the annals of rock and roll history (Cavern Club; Altamont; a Rolls Royce in a pool – the famous bands associated with those places or incidents don’t even need to be named) but largely overlooked nowadays. Their website and both the notes and pictures in the CD sleeve celebrate the album’s genesis – it was recorded in the US with Eagles Of Death Metal guitarist Dave Catching producing, so there is an interesting story to tell – as much as they do the music. The focus on context may be the reason there’s not much range in compositional terms, with every track getting to the same propulsive, shouty garage rock stage at some point in the song. There are some fresh ideas in various introductions, but arrangement all tend towards a shared ambience. The title track starts off like a Queens of the Stone Age (a big influence, and you don’t need the publicity material to tell you that) tune and closing pair Out Of Time and Coming Home ensure the project closes on an up. Mostly, however, Nothing More establishes Red Huxley as purveyors of a certain sound without giving real notice of the extent of their talents.

 

Pharrell Williams is more or less beyond being affected by criticism now, the result of a high work ethic as world-class producer, songwriter, singer and odd hat-wearer. This album includes the all-conquering hit Happy that, coupled with the Daft Punk collaboration Get Lucky and the Robin Thicke/Marvin Gaye moneymaker/lawsuit Blurred Lines, made Williams easily the most influential artist on the planet for a while. Influence is a strange thing, though. It makes artists into reference points for others – “This should do well; sounds a little like Pharrell” – but in doing so it also removes part of the uniqueness that makes those artists special. So while everything on Girl works, in that it’s beautifully produced and smooth, it takes a number of close listens before it becomes easy to identify each track as a separate entity. There are moments that stand out more than others: opener Marilyn Monroe doesn’t take long to get under your skin and the phrase “I just want to say, thank you for this day” in the Justin Timberlake-featuring Brand New sounds like vintage Stevie Wonder. Another aspect that makes the collection worth visiting as more than high-quality mood soundtracking is the essence of exactly the mood it creates. Williams is not a sad man: everything on this album (with the exception of the wonky Lost Queen) buzzes with upbeat energy. It’s fair to say that most of that is driven by the singer’s undoubted libido, but even at his most lascivious, he’s some distance off the lewdness level embraced by many of his contemporaries. Williams has been called a “pop polymath”, but while he does a great many things very well indeed, Girl suggests that there are very real limits to the range of his ideas.

 

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